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BY CHELYEN DAVIS
As Virginia Republicans work this fall to regain control of the state Senate, one of the key pieces of their strategy is the 17th District.
There, the party hopes Bryce Reeves can knock off longtime incumbent Edd Houck. Republicans' hopes are bolstered by the fact that the 17th is Republican-leaning. But Houck points out that it always has been--and it has elected him seven times.
The contest in the 17th--which covers parts of Spotsylvania, Louisa, Orange, Culpeper and Albemarle counties and the city of Fredericksburg--is shaping up to be one of the marquee races of the fall's legislative elections.
With Democrats holding just a two-seat advantage in the state Senate, Republicans see a real chance to retake control of that body.
Houck is, by any measure, a strong incumbent. He's a senior senator with a seat on the powerful budget-writing Finance Committee, a former educator who's known as a fierce advocate for public schools, and he's sitting on about half a million dollars in campaign cash.
But Reeves is also a strong challenger. He has been planning this campaign for years, and kicked it off last fall. He's a conservative with tea party appeal, a former police officer and Army Ranger who can also talk business practicalities. He's taking time off from his insurance company to campaign full time--no small consideration when it comes to doing the door-knocking and hand-shaking part of campaigning.
So it's little surprise that both political parties are making a play for the seat.
Reeves has had campaign events with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose Opportunity Virginia PAC gave Reeves $50,000 last month. The only Senate candidate to receive more from McDonnell's PAC has been Bill Stanley, who's challenging Sen. Roscoe Reynolds in Southside.
The state Republican party also spent $36,000 on mailers for Reeves, and he has received $10,000 from the 7th Congressional District Republicans, according to campaign finance reports in mid-August. The next reports will be out next week.
Houck already had a sizable campaign chest and needs less help from his party, but the state Democrats did spent $15,780 on direct-mail pieces for Houck, and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner has held a fundraising event for him.
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato pointed out that he has seen TV ads from both campaigns--not something normally done in August, and an indicator that this is going to be a big-money race.
Reeves says there's no doubt his party is strongly supporting his candidacy.
"It's huge. This is a predominantly Republican district," he said in an interview at his campaign office. "It's in the top three races in Virginia, maybe top four. I see no reason why we're not going to take back the majority" in the state Senate.
But he also likes to point to his grass-roots support, noting the $21,411 he has received from 394 people who made contributions of $100 or less. Houck's reports, Reeves notes, show half that from small-money donors, while a lot of Houck's money comes from Richmond lobbyists and corporate PACs, something not unusual for incumbents of either party.
"The majority of our support comes from the grass roots," Reeves said. "Our campaign appeals to mom and pop, those folks who want to see a change."
Reeves has spent the summer traveling the district, knocking on doors, and says everyone wants to talk about one thing: jobs. Everyone knows someone looking for work, someone 30 days from the street, he said. He's embarking on a tour of the district specifically to talk to business people about ways the state government could encourage job creation.
Houck, too, is traveling the district, especially the new portions gained in this year's redistricting process. As a sitting senator, he must balance politicking with representation, he said, and has spent much of the past few weeks helping constituents deal with the fallout from the Louisa earthquake and Hurricane Irene.
"I've spent countless hours in Louisa and in Orange and in Culpeper, not campaigning but helping and working with local governments, the school system, citizens, trying to deal with these natural disaster things that have happened," Houck said. "In the midst of this campaign, I can't stop being a senator and being attuned to constituent service."
Houck says it is clear that Republicans are targeting him, pointing out their hefty donations to his opponent. He has had opponents in each of his seven past elections, Houck said, and is used to defending his record, but this time the attention is a bit different.
"The biggest difference is that with the two-member majority, it's clear the Republicans are going to spend as much money as they possibly can and use any tactics they can to pick up those two seats," Houck said. "The fact that I'm a Democrat who has been successfully re-elected seven previous times in a Republican district, that elevates the race, and so I'm taking it seriously and working very, very hard."
While Reeves and other Republicans have depicted the Democratic Senate as a blockade against McDonnell's agenda, Houck says that's wrong, particularly when the argument is targeted at him.
Senate Democrats passed McDonnell's proposals to invest money in economic development, he said. They approved his higher-education package, and indeed every piece of legislation that McDonnell touts as being successfully passed was passed by Democrats in the Senate.
"The successes he's had are largely accountable to the Democrats in the Senate and with Edd Houck being one of his strongest allies," Houck said. "There's nothing wrong in Virginia. We are the envy of most other states, and for at least the last four years that's from Democrats like myself working with the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and working with our Republican governor."
Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245